An Artist’s Life

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I love books. I’ve been reading books, and even making up my own stories, since I was five years old. The only thing is, I’ve been reading the same kind of literature for as long as I can remember — mostly 19th Century British literature. I’ve always loved Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, etc.. As Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice would say, these authors have “been my old friends…these last twenty years at least.” I used to read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre once a year. I’ve read Austen’s books so many times that I can quote them. It’s not that I’ve never read an author that wasn’t a 19th-Century Brit — it’s just that I’ve always tended to gravitate towards this kind of literature. Recently, however, I’ve felt a strong urge to seek out other authors and other subjects. I felt it was high time to expand my reading material and get out of my “comfort zone.” Which brings me to my current subject…

I’ve been reading a fascinating memoir titled Just Kids, about the life of musician/writer Patti Smith and her relationship with artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m throughly enjoying it so far. It recounts Patti and Robert’s struggle to make it as artists while living in the slums of New York during the tumultuous 1960’s. They work hard at small retail jobs to make ends meat, sharing stale bread, eating water-and-lettice soup, while at the same time devoting themselves to their respective talents. They stay up all night in their colorfully-decorated apartment listening to records and painting or writing. It’s a great read, and I definitely recommend it. I have to say, it’s gotten me thinking about the whole concept of the “starving artist.” It’s such a cliche idea now-a-days, yet there are still people out there today for whom this cliche is a reality. I can’t help but admire those who have the courage to devote themselves full-time to their art, even at the risk of financial hardship. Reading about such struggles in Just Kids makes me a little envious. I have always lived a very sheltered and protected life — always played it safe. I’ve never been quite brave enough to throw myself, head first, into my writing career. I have a friend who, even though she received a respectable degree from a good university, has decided to throw caution to the wind and pursue an acting career full-time.  It’s not an easy life, but it she seems to be enjoying it.  There are times where I wish I could make the same kind of commitment to my writing.

Then again, I could be over-romanticizing things. Financial hardship is never easy. I’m very lucky to have the job that I do. Working at a mortgage company is not brilliantly exciting, but it is a learning experience. Besides, why can’t I make a commitment to my writing now — with or without financial hardship? What’s stopping me? Perhaps it’s psychological.  Having now entered the Rat Race, I’ve realized how easy it is to become too complacent with one’s life…to work, pay one’s bills, and get comfortable just living day-to-day, and pay check to pay check. For those of us who’ve always had the urge to be creative, such a life can sometimes seem inspiration-less. But then, even the greatest writers and artists can go through periods of boredom and “artist’s block”.

Today, I happened to read something which addresses this notion of the “artist’s block”.  I bought a new book called The Bird King; an artist’s notebook. It displays a series of sketches and paintings by illustrator and children’s book author Shaun Tan — an artist I only discovered recently. His introduction to the book begins as follows:

I”m often wary of using the word ‘inspiration’ to introduce my work — it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions when an idea pops into my head for no discernible reason, the reality is usually far more prosaic. Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can’t think of anything original. I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive. It’s the familiar malaise of ‘artist’s block’ and in such circumstances there is only one thing to do: Just start drawing.”

– from The Bird King; an artist’s notebook., pg. 4


“Just start drawing.” I suppose, were I apply this phrase to myself — or any writer, for that matter — it would be “Just start writing.” So there you have it. Very simple advice. I suppose that’s what starving artists like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe did on a regular basis. They didn’t doubt or second-guess themselves. They didn’t hold back. They just did what they wanted to do. Even if what they produced was less-than brilliant, they did it anyway. It’s inspiring to read about people who, despite all opposition, had the courage to go for what they really wanted in life. And, artist or not, I think we could all learn a little something from them.